Friday, January 06, 2006

The Power of the Truffle

A bright copper pan was gently placed on the portable burner, perched on a cart, silently wheeled to the edge of our table. The tall, gray-haired waiter wearing a hefty black jacket and white apron synched around the girth of his belly dropped a generous dollop of butter onto the pan. As it melted, bubbling yellow, he picked up a shining metal instrument and a small bobble of bulbous black. In a theatrically rehearsed gesture, he slowly shaved the coveted black truffle over the sizzling butter. He lifted the heavy top off of another nearby pan, exposing a mound of freshly made, steaming pasta. The slithering strings of egg noodles were ceremoniously dropped into the truffled butter, tossed slowly and fastidiously over the low flame until the entire dish gleamed. The pasta landed with a calm flop onto an enormous white plate, placed neatly in front of the wide-eyed Charley, my mother’s hungry boyfriend. The waiter smiled as he shaved a bit more dark truffle on top. I drank the unforgettable, earthy aroma of truffles into my very pores. That pasta was not even something that I had ordered; I probably passed over the simple dish for something more complicated, something of which I have no memory. I did help Charley clean his plate, however. And that meal certainly stands out in my mind.

The rich aroma and deep flavor of truffles – mainly the scorzone estivo, or mild black truffle, harvested largely in the Umbrian countryside of Italy during the summer months – were constant companions in my trip this past August. A truffle-studded pecorino cheese with crusty bread and red wine for a tipsily picnic lunch; a light, crispy pizza bubbling from the wood-fired oven and covered in light, sliced truffle; truffle paste on crackers, shaved over pasta, prancing through my sun-induced afternoon dreams. Even while hiking each day through the crackling Umbrian woods, my eyes were constantly drawn to small neon-yellow rectangles of plastic perched on long metal skewers, nestled alongside the trails at regular intervals. Raccolata Tartufi Reservata, they said, humming with possibility. We were in truffle hunting grounds. There are truffles everywhere, I often told myself. Never really having experienced that uniquely earth-bound flavor before that trip, I thought of them with awe. I was surprised and delighted by their abundance. I loved imagining their delicacy constantly underfoot in the woods, on my plate in restaurants.

***

And so in the last few months, glancing at the small glass jar perched hauntingly on the window sill of my kitchen, its red cap softly shadowing a luscious black Umbrian truffle, I have felt a wave of sadness. The flavor of truffle, I can only imagine, comes mainly from its unique aroma. After all, around 70% of taste is appreciated through smell. An odorless truffle cannot stand alone. I would not go anywhere near the thing. Being physically close to that truffle, thinking even a tiny bit about what I had wanted to use it for made me angry. It represented the proof of my loss of smell. And this, somewhere in the back of my mind, felt as if it rendered my trip to Italy invalid. It made that wonderful time cease to exist. I didn’t move the jar, though; I didn’t want to touch it. That poor little truffle, still sitting so calmly on the window, took a lot of mental heat for things it had nothing to do with this fall.

The truffle and I, however, are now on better footing. We seem to have made some progress. Perhaps even a glimpse of friendship lurking close by.

I spent New Year’s weekend in New York City. A few days of friends, museums and champagne; it was boisterous, fun, far from being injured. I even wore heels (quite a feat after the past months of limping around Boston I must say). And on that Friday night my friend John and I went out for a cozy dinner in Little Italy. We split a bronzed pizza, gooey with mozzarella and mushrooms, sprinkled with rosemary and truffle oil. Delicious in its own right, of course. But when a vivid image of that large, truffle-shaving Italian waiter immediately came to mind as I chewed, swallowed and slowly exhaled, I knew it was a bit more than that. I could taste the truffle; a rich, familiarly earthy aroma traveled from the depth of my throat out through my nose. It tasted like Italy; it fairly tingled with possibility.

***

Recently I’ve been thinking about my smells that have returned. The scents that I can detect most strongly these days are all tied to meaning greater than a simple odor. The fruity tang of wine is a thousand memories of friends, family, travel and cooking tied up in each sip. Rosemary’s smell blew through my consciousness even more frequently in Italy than that of truffles; the wildly growing rosemary bushes perfumed my hair, clothes, thoughts. The subtle perfume of soap, one of the first odors I regained, is the comforting familiarity of daily clean. The scents of chocolate, coffee and cinnamon, slowly coming back around to my olfactory registration, immediately conjure up thoughts of home, winter evenings with my mom. Truffles have become Italy; a country I fell in love with while studying art history in Florence, a place I’ll always return to. And I can’t help but wonder why I am so lucky as to get back the smells that mean the most to me. It is as if my emotions, memories and thoughts (however unconscious) are influencing the speed and strength of my olfactory neuronal growth. A strange thought; one that my mother the psychoanalyst finds strikingly interesting and one that I would love to be true. If I think about it really hard, perhaps I’ll soon stumble onto the smell of freshly baked bread, warm out of the oven. If my subconscious has the power to reinstate the truffle, truly anything is possible.

3 comments:

Rainey said...

Of course, both the sensory and emotional impact of these special treasured experiences/memories could spring from the very primal nature of the contact. Nature's little bullseyes, so to speak that persist and create the mythology of memories. Just as what we call "primitive" art bypasses every intellectual response we have and goes directly to a core of human experience.

Molly, if you haven't yet, just make some bread. Even if the aromas of raw dough and baking bread come later there are sooo many sensory delights in dough. Surely you got to discover this in the bakery. ...or perhaps the production demands didn't permit for it. Whichever, I'm wondering if the sensory memories in the skin of kneading will excite the olfactory senses.

Bake some bread. Something savory with olives and rosemary. Something sweet with cinnamon. Build on what's emerging.

Meanwhile, do you experiment with re-educating or exciting the neurons that are present and re-growing? Is there therapy (other than "Work is therapy, Molly")?

Each development is exciting. Thanks so much for sharing.

Melissa said...

Hi Molly! First of all, many congratulations on your nomination in the food blog awards. I wasn't at all surprised - your writing is just exquisite! Also, thank you for taking us along on your journey of recovery, it's wonderful and fascinating to read. Someday soon, I'm sure, you'll be compensated for your difficult healing process by possessing an awareness and appreciation of smell and taste that far surpass everyone else's. Just reading this makes me feel that you've heightened mine.

Anonymous said...

I love scent of chocolate! It makes me happy! I know a lot about scents mood, but in this case I feel it on practice.